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File / The Outlook Benjamin Russell's Ryan Slaten had an ERA of just 1.520 last year and he's expected to be in the top rotation again this season.

When a team is coming off a quarterfinal appearance, that comes with a lot of pressure. But Benjamin Russell’s baseball team has put last year behind it.

With a lot of questions still remaining despite the season beginning today, the Wildcats aren’t going to put any extra pressure on themselves.

“Of course we’d like to make the playoffs,” BRHS coach Richy Brooks said. “Of course we’d like to be above .500. We’d love to set a new Benjamin Russell High School record for wins. That’d be great. But all of those things will take care of themselves if we just keep working every day.” 

One thing that’s not a question is Benjamin Russell’s pitchers. The Wildcats have several returners, including Ryan Slaten and Brett Pitts who both finished with an ERA of 1.52 or under last year. Cade Brooks returns with the most experience, and he had an ERA of just 2.692 last year; in 52 innings of work, he struck out 59.

The Wildcats are also looking forward to the addition of Elijah Spivey, and coach Brooks said he fully expects all four of those guys to see time on the mound during today’s doubleheader at Wetumpka.

“I would be most disappointed if (pitching) wasn’t a strength of ours,” Brooks said. “We have so many back from having experience last year, and playoff experience too. We hope that’s a strength of ours anyway.”

There are several others who could see mound time today and throughout the season, including Ryan Willis who threw seven innings last year and didn’t give up an earned run; Colby Riddle, Dawson Trapp and Neal Fenn, who all saw at least an inning last season; and Owen Wilson, Dax Culligan and Carter Smith, who threw on the JV team last year.

But as strong as the Wildcats are on the mound, there is one thing they’re in desperate need of and that’s a catcher. BRHS graduated Wilson Hays, who started at catcher for at least three years, and now they’re having to replace Mr. Reliable.

“We’re going to try some guys and they’re going to show us in the game who is supposed to be the catcher,” Brooks said.

Trapp, Riddle, Fenn and Tyler Brown have all been working and could see time behind the plate.

Pitts has some experience catching but Brooks feels Pitts is better suited at shortstop or third base. Cade Brooks will play mostly third and first along with Slaten and Spivey will likely play in center field.

“We’re swinging guys all over the place depending on who’s pitching,” coach Brooks said. 

Taking up the second base spot will likely be either Smith or Culligan. 

Along with Spivey, Brooks feels very good about his outfielers. Ryan Willis returns for his fourth year on varsity while Ty Brown is in his third year; Denzel Greene started several games last year as well.

“We feel a little better about our guys coming back out there,” Brooks said.

Joe Young will be a designated hitter and may also play some first base, but he’s been battling through an injury during the preseason.

Offensively, the Wildcats are still working out some kinks with the lineup but Brooks said that’s typical. In 30 previous years of coaching high school baseball, Brooks has never ended a season with the same lineup he started it with, so what happens today may not stick. But he has high hopes for the offense, especially for the returners.

“Brett Pitts certainly has been a hitter for us since his freshman year,” Brooks said. “We hope that guys like Cade, Ryan Willis, Ty Brown, all those people who played before — even Joe and Denzel — we hope they’ll be strong early and give the others a chance to settle in. 

“We have some ideas but we’ll certainly experiment with the lineup early. Nick McGhee did a really good job leading off last year, so that’s something we’ll be looking for. We’ll probably have some surprises, but like I’ve told them, they’ll show us who should be playing.” 

Opelika and Russell County are once again area opponents for the Wildcats and while Brooks knows BRHS’ margin of error is slim depth-wise, it’s also pretty small in area play. Although Benjamin Russell advanced to the quarterfinals last season, had it lost just one more game to Opelika or had the Bulldogs defeated Russell County, the Wildcats would’ve missed the posteason altogether.

“One thing we’ve got to sell our kids on is we worry about us,” Brooks said. “We know this and that’s (Russell County and Opelika) will be good. We just need to worry about Benjamin Russell and I’m hoping that’s good enough for us. Last year is over; this is a brand new team, brand new personality and brand new players. We need to just keep working on us, and there are things that will take care of themselves.” 

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.